By Zach Sparks
“Like walking into a store” — that’s how County Executive Steuart Pittman described the new town hall budget meeting process. Instead of choosing between a new pair of athletic shoes and a crockpot, Anne Arundel County residents will voice their preference between salary raises, community amenities and road improvements while also supporting or opposing the tax hikes that may fund those items.
Voters opted for a referendum in 2016 that required the county executive to hold at least two public budget hearings prior to finalizing the initial proposal on May 1. Pittman is expanding that requirement so that each council district will have a meeting. Northeast High School will host the Pasadena event on Tuesday, March 12, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm.
Each town hall will feature opening remarks from the county executive and the host councilmember, followed by a brief budget presentation. Attendees will then be encouraged to pose questions.
“Rather than having the citizens come in and talk to the department heads and pick up their brochures in a gymnasium with a bunch of tables, it’s going to be a hearing, and there is going to be information provided to people before they come to that hearing,” Pittman said. “People are going to stand up, just the way they do at the county council meetings, and argue for what they believe and I’m going to listen. And then we have to go back and come up with a plan.”
The Anne Arundel County website will allow people to review last year’s spending, and see the cost of adding services and county employees.
“We’ve asked for basic information: how much a police officer and car costs, how much a teacher costs, how much a school costs,” Pittman said. “If we want to fund those things, then we look at sources of revenue. There’s the property tax, the income tax and impact fees from developers.”
Councilman Nathan Volke is eager to attend the budget hearing to learn more about the options and he’s in favor of the new format.
“The budget will have not been put together yet, so we can say, ‘If you do X, this is the consequence,’ and that will give people a sense holistically of what the cost is of making these decisions,” Volke said.
According to a January report issued by the Spending and Affordability Committee, Anne Arundel County should receive $57.2 million more than Fiscal Year 2019 due to an income growth rate projection of 3.75 percent. Pittman said roughly $40 million of that total will be earmarked for mandated requirements like pensions.
Salary increases might mean reversing course on recent tax cuts under former County Executive Steve Schuh and the former county council, but Volke thinks that objective can be met without raising taxes.
“I’m opposed to tax increases and that was something I was pretty clear on when I ran for office, but I also ran on incrementally funding our government infrastructure and the people who make it work — police, firefighters and teachers, and there are many other people too,” Volke said. “I think we can do that without raising taxes.”
Other budget town hall meetings include Southern High School on February 27, Arundel High School on March 5, Glen Burnie High School on March 7, Lindale Middle School on March 20, Severna Park High School on March 26 and Annapolis High School on March 28. Pittman’s administration plans to live-stream each meeting.
Pittman will announce his budget on May 1. The county council will have 45 days to deliberate changes. In a statement, Pittman emphasized the importance of citizen input.
“We want our residents to be involved in our county budget decisions and we want direct citizen input to help inform us,” Pittman said. “The county charter requires us to have two meetings, but that’s not enough. We are going out into the communities in each council district to share information about what things cost and what our revenue projections look like. Information is power.”